I used to think of values education as just an academic subject in school, an easy grade that does not have anything to do with my life outside the classroom. When my kids came, though, it suddenly took on a whole new meaning. Having decided to homeschool them added significance to the matter.
As parents, we want our children to grow up to be good people. We set rules, remind them of the dos and don’ts of behaving towards others, and generally take on the responsibility of their moral education.
Moral education, according to former United States Secretary of Education William J. Bennett in his beautifully illustrated book The Children’s Book of Virtues, is “the training of heart and mind toward the good.”
The word training connotes intentional teaching. We cannot just deal with problems about attitude and values as they come up -- we have to be proactive instead of reactive. Being intentional about our kids’ character development means molding them instead of just correcting. We cannot and should not be firefighters. Training our children to be good people means making it a way of life, something that we work on together on a daily basis.
The values that we want instilled in our children are not something that can just be studied once or twice a week in school with a few quizzes and exams thrown along the way. In addition, teachers only get to see children under their care in the context of classrooms and grades. We, therefore, have to take the lead.
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Parents are their children’s first and best teacher, and character development is one of the most important parts of this role. If we want to train our children according to the values that we hold dear, we have to be intentional about how we go about it. Our first step must be to acknowledge that we cannot expect them to understand what we are teaching them without actually seeing it for themselves.
According to Bennett, we have to work on showing “what the virtues look like, what they are in practice, how to recognize them, and how they work.” We need to be clear and precise when we take the reins of our children’s moral education.
Here are some ideas to consider on how we can raise our children to be good people.
1. Dream about the kind of people we want them to be. We do not acquire virtues and tick them off a checklist; we absorb and become these virtues. Dreaming about the kind of people we want our children to be enables us to guide them on a day-to-day basis towards that dream.
2. Give them something great to emulate. Children watch us all the time and they imitate us more than they listen to what we say. Scary? Definitely. It is scary to think that what we see in them is most probably a version of what they have seen us do or hear us say.
If we want them to be honest, then we have to be honest even when no one is looking. If we want them to believe in themselves, then we must show them how much we work hard for our dreams. Let us give them something excellent to emulate and be someone they can aim to be like.
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3. Recognize and utilize teachable moments. A teachable moment is an object, a question, an experience, or basically any opportunity that we see in our daily life that we can use to give our children an appreciation of a certain value.
It can be as simple as pointing out a man helping an old lady cross the street, or talking about gratefulness as you get ready to pray before a meal. Talk about it, ask questions, and get ready to answer their questions.
4. Read books about values and virtues. Children will always appreciate the time that we spend reading to them. When we read and talk about books featuring desired values, we are giving them vivid examples that they can go back to again and again.
Bennett calls this moral literacy. He says, “If we want our children to possess the traits of character we most admire – honesty, courage, compassion – we need to teach them what those traits are and why they deserve both admiration and allegiance.” Books are the easiest way to do this.
5. Use fun and creative methods to instill values. Children respond well to games and activities. There are many materials out there that offer a variety of ideas that can be easily incorporated into daily life, even before and after school.
In our homeschool, we use We Choose Virtues, a tool designed to help parents reinforce values in a gentle, non-threatening way. For example, when my daughter was still very young, we had fun talking with our regular voices, whispering, and shouting. We were talking about speaking quietly.
We are the primary influence in our children’s lives. We are in a great position to teach them good behavior and positive attitude. Whatever else we might think, we shape them into the people that they will become.
Being virtuous or being moral does not come easily and naturally. Though we might think that setting a good example for our children is enough, actively molding instead of just correcting should be our mindset. We cannot just blindly hope for the best!